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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses Confucianism from a historical, religious, and cultural standpoint, with emphasis on its role in societal stability and its unique ability to meld with religions as different as Buddhism and Christianity.

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Source: Music: "Nanyang Journey (Instrumental)" by Ivan Chew is licensed under a Creative Commons license:

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome. Today we're going to talk about Confucianism. Most religions are not strangers to the complex questions about truth and justice and the purpose of life for an individual in society, the afterlife. And not to mention the theory that shared values and beliefs can function to bind a society.

Well, Confucianism is a philosophical system of moral and ethical principles that is based on the thought and writings of a man who was eager to understand the workings of the human individual in all of his or her various relationships with the world.

Confucius lived in the sixth and the fifth centuries before the common era during what is known as the Spring and Autumn period. Confucianism has influenced many countries and many thinkers throughout history. And the influence of Confucianism on China, its homeland, as well as many surrounding countries, was very broad and very long lasting.

The Europeans in the 17th century came into contact with Confucianism and found it to be quite compatible with religious thought and certain religions themselves. Although it is non-theistic, many of its moral and ethical guidelines were found to be in sync with certain religious beliefs relating to duty and conduct in the world.

In Korea, it lives alongside Buddhism and Christianity and really plays a key role in nearly every individual's life. However, less than 50% of the population claim affiliation with either Buddhism or Christianity, yet nearly everyone identifies with Confucianism.

Like many religions, it has principles and guidelines that lead the individual and society toward transformation and purification in line with the faith and trust in a higher order upon which human order might then be modeled. And because of its emphasis on human relationships and the perfection of humans in relation to society, it is often called the philosophy of humanism.

In this sense, it is not a religion. It's not considered a religion, but rather a philosophical system of ordering principles that can be applied on an individual, societal, governmental, or even a global scale. And Confucianism had formed a strong foundation for society, functioning as a state ideology.

And in spite of the communist rise to power in the 20th century in China, many would argue that it still informs the Chinese mind in terms of moral codes, ethical principles, and most of all their relationships within society.

So there are many, many themes within Confucianism, but they all return, in one way or another, to the web of what are called the Five Relationships. Ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, and friend to friend, these are the five key relationships that everything else seems to revolve around in Confucianism.

An ideological system like this was very appealing during the time of Confucius. The feudal system of the current Zhou dynasty was dissolving, and there was growing economic and social destabilization. The philosophy of Confucianism was followed to help reorient society in good humanist fashion one individual at a time.

And as we just noted, Confucianism is compatible with some other religions, certain forms of Christianity and Buddhism, for example. However, there is one point of contention for the Catholic Church, and this is the Confucian ritual practice of ancestor worship, which is an expression of filial piety, one of the central relationships in the Confucian system.

Venerating one's ancestors in this way was generally thought to be a form of paganism by the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore unjustified superstition. In countries like Korea, where Confucianism still has great significance for people, this is still an issue of public debate.

Now let's review Confucianism. Confucius lived during the sixth and the fifth centuries before the Common Era, during a time of political and economic instability. He used his philosophical system of ordering principles, moral and ethical guidelines, to help bring structure back to society.

And the foundational element of his system was, one of them that we mentioned, was the Five Relationships. And this was the idea that the individual must understand his own relationship to himself, and then further his relationship to society and the web of relationships within society. And we noted the five of them.

We also pointed out that there's a great compatibility between the Confucian philosophical system, which we identified as a humanistic system. There's a great compatibility between Confucianism and the religions of the world, many of them, because of its ethical and moral outlook and the idea that the individual and society can be transformed and purified according to some higher principle.

However, it can't be identified as a religion because it doesn't have a god that is followed and worshipped in the way that religions are. Nevertheless, there is great compatibility.

And we pointed out that Confucianism had a broad influence in surrounding countries and upon the world. And that we used the example of Korea, noting that most everyone in Korean society today would identify with Confucianism before they would identify with Buddhism or Christianity.

Which is not to say at all that they are not compatible. That simply that they can co-exist, and that there is great overlap in commonality and great support within both systems for understanding the role of individual life, again, in relation to society.

Some of the primary Confucian texts are the Book of Filial Piety, The Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Great Harmony or Mean.

Terms to Know

The belief that human beings occupy a unique position in the world and/or universe and that consequently the study of humanity is central to all human inquiry.